Like silver-headed nails

Dots and gleams of silver brightness resembling nails?  This is an unusual image. 'The road shone like silver-headed nails...' Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Bowlby (Oxford: World's Classics, 1992), p. 285 Photo...

A quickening of senses

Orlando does in fact travel through a time tunnel for hundreds of years, so this is less of a metaphor than it seems. The real metaphor lies in that quickening of his - by now her - senses as if a tuner had keyed her nerves to tautness as tightened piano wires. '......

Blotted images and spotted mirrors

An original way to convey a flawed image, likening it to the spots you used to find on old mirrors, which would transfer themselves to any face reflected in the glass. May your happiness and your dreams be unsullied. 'Hail, happiness, then, and after happiness, hail...

Like drops of scalding water

Curious to use 'scalding', suggesting she was happy to have the present fall away from her, that in some respect it had been burning her.  It's a good image for being freed of something which has injured you. 'The present fell from her like drops of scalding water.'...

Thought like a risen moon

This one puzzles me a little - the moon a sheet of silver calm yet the water turbulent, which would discombobulate the image of the moon on the water. 'And whenever she thought of him, the thought spread round it, like the risen moon on turbulent waters, a sheet of...

Bright as lamps, haggard as …

Never thought of dawn as being haggard, though an insomniac crawling into it after a restless night might be.  'Bright as lamps' is obvious but we never use it. May your eyes be bright and may you never feel haggard as dawn. See also examples of lamps as luminous...

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

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Like a housemaid’s fancies

A delightful way to convey disorderly thoughts, and I like that 'languishing and ogling'. '... she could scarcely keep her ideas in order.  They were languishing and ogling like a housemaid's fancies.' Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an...

Genius as lighthouse beams

An interesting metaphor to describe the haphazard workings of genius, appearing like a beam illuminating the surrounding darkness at intervals, but without the pulsing regularity of the lighthouse.  And in between their dazzling flashes, the genius withdraws into...

Like underwear on a washing line

Two things caught my attention: firstly, the way a small, single, commonplace action, such as sitting down and preparing to write, can trigger a tumble of thoughts and impressions, and secondly, the surprising translation of those cascading ideas into the underwear of...

As slim and blithe as…

Here's Orlando fast forwarding to imagine how his blithe, slim darling might appear at 40.  I liked 'slim as a reed' and above all, 'blithe as a lark'.  May you be so, whatever your age. And he did see her again, centuries later, and she had indeed grown unwieldy....

Slung like an orange

A rare sight in London - the sun slung in the sky like a blood orange, let alone hanging from the cross of St. Paul's.  It must have had the visual impact of an omen. 'He was recalled, turning westward, by the sight of the sun, slung like an orange on the cross of St....

Hook, line and sinker

Orlando did in fact fall hook, line and sinker, so the metaphor of being hooked through the nose and dragged through the waters isn't far off, particularly given that Sasha never quite appears to be in love with him. But Sasha is enigmatic and we never hear her story...

As soft as …

Orlando names his lover 'Sasha' ostensibly because she is Russian and so was the white fox he had as a boy.  But note what follows the description of this beautiful fox (for surely it was beautiful) as being 'soft as snow' - its teeth of steel bite him so savagely his...

Eyes like (II) …

Another unusual description of eyes by Virginia Woolf, as Orlando tries to confirm the gender of the girl he is falling in love with.  And what do such eyes look like?  Soulful and mysterious? See also her description of Orlando's eyes. 'No boy had eyes which looked...

Eyes like …

I have never seen violet eyes, though I have a recollection of someone describing Elizabeth Taylor's as being of this colour.  But 'drenched violets', how enchanting those must be! See also Woolf's description of Orlando's lover's eyes. '... we must admit that he had...

Like quicksand beneath a monument

Orlando's love for Sasha is always on such shaky ground as his passion and jealousy and her apparent infidelity and coolness wreak havoc with his emotions. 'The doubt underlying the tremendous force of his feelings was like a quicksand beneath a monument which shifts...

As motionless as …

I have tried to think of standard similes for stillness, and 'statue' is an obvious one, here morphed into a figurehead. Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, introduction by Michael Gorra, New York: New York Review of Books, 2006...

A table laid by ravens

Leigh Fermor describes the unexpected hospitality and kindness encountered in the Mani after having been warned that his throat would more likely be slit. I found this description of meals appearing quite magical, as if ravens were waiting on you. I was also surprised...

Heat like a casserole

One of many descriptions of staggering heat and light in the Mani. 'The stone flags at the water's edge ... flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, introduction by Michael Gorra,...

As miraculous and consoling as…

I wish you some miraculous and consoling intimations that feel like Helen's hand laid across your brow. '... an intimation as miraculous and consoling as the hand of Argive Helen laid across his brow...' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern...

A face fashioned from waste

This astounded me with its originality, even to think of the waste material that might accumulate under the claws of an old lion.  Surprising also was that when I looked at the notes made while reading this magnificent novel, I only found a few metaphors, though of...

Thick with time

This conjures for me a heat-shimmering visibility to the normally invisible air, providing a sense of density that you can imagine being imbued with time. 'The air was dense and shimmering, thick with time.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

A flood of invective

For me, more striking is the explosive element of the woman's invective, its eruption rather than the splashing and rolling around that comes in its aftermath. 'As he said that, the woman started to curse in a flood of obscene invective that rolled over and around him...

Silence seated with a finger to its lips

A sinister silence this, not an absence of sound, but an agent in its own right. 'The silence sat down with them like an invisible creature with its finger to its lips.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (London: Picador, 1979), p. 166...

Spreading like ink across blotting paper

This image is used by Leigh Fermor to describe the speed and flow of Slavs into a region.  Although I played the game of Grandmother's Steps as a child, I had never heard it called by this name before and had to look it up.  I remember it as being called something...

Heat as strong as a curse

Leigh Fermor finds many ways to convey the unforgiving heat and light of the sun in the Mani, so strong as to feel like a curse more than a blessing. 'The sun beat down like a curse.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,...

The thought of space

Such a subtle and evocative idea, likening a faint, indefinable and glorious feeling not to space, but to the thought of it. 'Aloof and august, He floats in an atmosphere which is still and spellbound and if a presiding mood can be identified, it is one of faint,...

Language like a wipe of garlic

What a way to convey the invigorating presence of foreign words in a language.  Even if imperfectly grafted, they add something of value, providing the same 'rank zest' that a wipe of garlic brings to a salad bowl. 'There are, through this random incrustation of...

A minstrel of defeat

An extraordinary idea: a minstrel of defeat, and even more so when used to describe an unpleasant smell of cooking.  Later, Hoban uses the smell of cooking to describe the pervasiveness of voices carried on the air.  He also refers to smell as a carrier of memory. 'In...

Eyes like oracle stones

Goats, along with sheep, have a peculiar stare, sometimes vague and batty, sometimes sinister and glassy.  This reminds me of a description of sheep's eyes by Vasily Grossman, as being like glass grapes. 'Goats stared with eyes like oracle stones.' Source: Russell...

Vomited out like a Jonah

The first of several descriptions of this boy being ejected from childhood innocence and security by his father's decision to abandon home in search of himself, or some such.  This reference to Jonah being spewed out of the whale is memorable. 'He felt as if the...

Smell as a carrier of memory

For better or worse, few things can as quickly transport you to another place, time, or experience as a smell.  These olfactory reminders are often so strong and instantaneous that they can't be avoided.  Ideally, they trigger happy memories, even nostalgia-tinged,...

Vanishing childhood

One of the great failings of the adult world is the collateral damage inflicted on children, with trauma yanking them out of childhood before they're ready.  This vivid image conveys the suddenness of Boaz-Jachin's ejection from childhood, later underlined by the...

Lamps like eyes

A blinding opaqueness conveys the idea of these globular lamps.  Later on, Hoban likens other street lamps to 'luminous fruits bursting with knowledge'. 'The globes of the lamps were like great blind eyes.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

Lumps of knowledge

In Hoban's book, a boy has adulthood thrust upon him after being abandoned by his father.  I loved this astonishing description of unavoidable knowledge prematurely imposed on his young mind: lumpy potatoes.  See also the description of how he was brutally ejected...

The taste of colour

This is one of two metaphors I found in Hoban's book which mix two senses.  Here visual overload leaves a sugary taste in the eye, while elsewhere he refers to sounds like the smell of old cooking. 'Too much colour, leaving a taste of marzipan in the eye.' Source:...

Dancing light, rippling reflections

Having occasionally lain in bed practically hypnotised by the dappling and dancing of light bouncing from water up to ceiling, I liked Hoban's reference to flashes of mystic writing, like a watery, visual morse. '... dancing light reflected from the water rippled on...

Womanhood slung over your shoulder

A surprising description which conveys a certain insouciance and strident, even defiant, confidence. 'She seemed to carry her womanhood the way men on the docks carried baling hooks on one shoulder – shiny, pointed, sharp.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of...

A well of terror

In this convincing tale of a urban lions, Hoban manages to capture the grip of fear, both as a serpent of panic and a bottomless well of terror. 'The snaky black and brilliant panic that had surged up in him when he had closed his eyes in the presence of the lion had...

Of sleepy lighthouses

Dwarfed by daylight, the lighthouse is a nocturnal creature like an owl, and so might similarly nod off to sleep when it has nothing to do. '... its lighthouse now standing sleepy like an owl in strong sunlight.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

Voices like the smell of cooking

You can hear the insistent but indefinite sound of speech penetrating the flimsy walls of a badly built tenement like an ineradicable accumulation of cooking smells.  This isn't the only example of Hoban making a metaphor for one sense out of another; elsewhere he...

Lamps as luminous fruits

I would love to find this street where the lamps are like luminous fruits bursting with knowledge.  You would only have to walk under their light to learn something. 'The street lamps seemed luminous fruits, bursting with knowledge.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of...

The aha moment with a twist

What a meaty way to convey a moment of sudden comprehension or insight, as when you have had a piece of meat jammed between two teeth, which has finally found freedom.  Russell Hoban's novel is one of the most imaginative I've read, both in its story and its use of...

The call of duty

This magnificent story, which features lions in unexpected places, describes the look of the kingly creature when glimpsed at dawn, his stern expression likened to the call of duty pulling imperatively and silently. ' ... head uplifted in the first light of day, stern...

As inert as …

Two fine similes to describe inertness, of which I lean to the first as being more euphonic and original. '… inert as an aardvark or a giant ant-eater…' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle...

Glowing like a comet

Celebrity success à la 16th century - I only knew of Sidney as a poet and courtier but wasn't aware of his star appeal on the international aristocratic circuit, appropriately conveyed as a glittering comet trail. 'Sir Philip Sidney’s brief passage across the...

Detonations of flight

An original way to capture the sudden soaring of a flock of birds.  A few weeks ago, a flock of a few hundred descended on the garden, half strutting about the lawn yanking elastic and reluctant worms out of the ground, the other half congregating in the apple tree,...

Stillness meets alertness

Having seen nearly neon-bright lizards in Taiwan, I liked this use of electricity to capture the vividness of their speedy green movements, and the perfect description of latency held in check in their 'alert petrifaction'. 'Green lizards, freshly woken from their...

Straight as an avenue of poplars

When was the last time you received - or wrote - an 18 page letter?  I think I have managed to write one or two in my life and that's even allowing for my quite large handwriting. What was in this letter, completely covered in a tall, straight hand that evoked a line...

Joy as flaring kingfisher

A marvelous metaphor this, the piercing joy of seeing a darting kingfisher.  May you experience many such kingfisher-flaring moments. 'That night and the night after and the night after, wherever she went, always in her own little circle of intimates, she brought a...

The fermentation of fear

A great metaphor for the way fear can bubble and multiply, bringing to the surface appalling images. What's the antidote?  To drink another product of fermentation? 'Fear worked like yeast in my thoughts, and the fermentation brought to the surface, in great gobs of...

Like stale cigar smoke

I liked this image of guilt as a waft of stale and strong-smelling smoke that can't be dispelled with a wave of the hand. '... but guilt hung about him like stale cigar smoke...' Source: Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain...

A pool of embarrassment

Curious idea that the person causing the pool of uneasiness is oblivious to it and just floats as dumb and easy as a log. 'Even on that convivial evening I could feel my host emanating little magnetic waves of social uneasiness, creating, rather, a pool of general...

The shape of things to come

Leigh Fermor's walk across Europe in the early 1930s captures many things that would be swept away in the following decade by the high tide of Nazism.  His journey took him through Germany and he chronicles the first menacing signals of what was to come, in the cocky,...

As voluminous as the Danube

I like that Leigh Fermor draws his simile from the place where the lady lives. 'Her soliloquy flowed on as voluminously as the Danube under her window.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts (London: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 176 Photo credit:...

A lyre-bird among carrion-crows

Well, if you're going to outshine your peers, let it be by such a striking margin.  Here Leigh Fermor is referring to the paintings of Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538). 'But he outshines his fellow-Danubians like a lyre-bird among carrion-crows.' Source: Patrick...

As blue and as vague as …

A beautiful image, blueness and vagueness likened to 'unmapped lakes', and these, referring to eyes, being misted over with the (over) consumption of plum-brandy.  And those 'tundra-blank' faces! 'Swamp-and-conifer men they looked, with faces tundra-blank and eyes as...

Weaving a stanza

Thoreau likens a fisherman's weaving of a creel to creating a poem about the spring. He shows great respect for skills and care in material things and processes. 'He was meditating a small poem in his way.  It was equal to a successful stanza whose subject was...

Five for the price of one

Thoreau packs in a rich deck of similes and metaphors in this short description of the shrub oak.  For the image, I looked for something that conveyed 'clean as the atmosphere', but I also like 'hardy as virtue' and the idea of being as 'natural and sound as a...

As moderate as …

A measured, precise, unfussy speaker, this farmer.  I also liked the idea of his not melting the snow where he treads, as if he is himself made of this clean, cold, moderate element. 'The farmer spoke to me, I can swear, clean, cold, moderate as the snow. He does not...

As insensible as …

Of course, we can't know (yet) how insensible a fungus is, but until we learn otherwise, what a memorable way to convey a loss of wonder.  Apologies to all wondering fungi. And may wonder never become extinct in you, whether or not you resemble fungus. 'Will wonder...

Like the lowing of a cow

Nature's hoarse summer voice?  Wind shuffling leaves and crickets rubbing hands together?  I like the metaphor, but nevertheless can't quite capture what it is. 'Nature has found her hoarse summer voice again, like the lowing of a cow let out to pasture.'  20 May 1856...

Like opening tombs

Thoreau voices strong opinions and they can be refreshingly blunt and funny, though it isn't always clear that he means them to be humorous.  It seems he didn't draw too much inspiration from New England journals. 'Most New England biographies and journals – John...

A voice like …

I don't think I've ever heard such a voice, unless it's one or two smokers I know after a bad winter bronchitis. '... a voice like a nut-meg grater.'   4 May 1856 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New...

Contorted as …

Never thought of caterpillars as contorted, but I like the simile.  Hope you do too, and the image I used. As contorted a caterpillar as I could find and what a lurid green! '... contorted like caterpillars.'  22 April 1855 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal...

Ebbs and flows of the soul

A journal as a beach gathering shells, seaweed and pearls washed up by the soul in the course of a day. 'Let the daily tide leave some deposit on these pages, as it leaves sand and shells on the shore. So much increase of terra firma. This may be a calendar of the...

All parts are one

A lovely comment on interconnectedness.  I had fun choosing the image and hope you like its gentle irreverence. 'All parts of nature belong to one head, as the curls of a maiden’s hair.  How beautifully flow the seasons as one year, and all streams as one ocean!' ...

Like sunshine over a field

I wish you countless such waves. 'A wave of happiness flows over us like sunshine over a field.'  7 August 1840 Source: Henry David Thoreau, The Journal 1837-1861, Damion Searls (ed.), preface by John R. Stilgoe (New York: New York Review Books, 2009), p. 11 Photo...

Waking like a bullet

While I don't relish bullets striking things, I like the occasional quickness of a sleep-satiated body waking up, alert to the day. 'When you have been deprived of your usual quantity of sleep for several nights, you sleep much more soundly for it, and wake up...

Floating on your buoyant prejudices

As I read the abridged version of Thoreau's journals encompassing only one tenth of the original 7,000 pages, I can't make any comprehensive comments about his writing.  But in extracting favourite quotations and metaphors  from the chunky 700 page version I read, it...

Thoughts as shells

The thoughts of poets likened to two types of shell, those that come from the depths and those that are washed up on shore and so exposed to the elements.  Thoreau has numerous comments on the nature of poets and poetry - I will be citing a number, even where I'm not...

Towing a sinking ship with a canoe

A clear portrayal of something being unequal to the task, Thoreau uses this maritime metaphor to describe words which strike him as inauthentic, being only half justified or improved by some modifier ('church' made true by calling it 'true church' - he doesn't...

Nature like an athlete

How wonderful to portray nature beefing herself up to wrestle with winter, stripping off all superfluity such as leaves, the better to grapple with cold and frost. 'Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great...

Of detonating ideas

Does that ever happen to you?  That an idea detonates over your head, shooting up like a colossal cartoon exclamation mark?  A vivid and unusual way to convey moments of piercing breakthrough. 'But it was in the transept of the cathedral that the notion suddenly took...

As slender as…

An unusual simile for slenderness, applied to an elliptical island in a river. '... an island as slender as a weaver’s shuttle divided the current amidstream.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

A winter warmer

Nothing like it, climbing under a meringue-like eiderdown on a freezing winter night, and sleeping off all fatigue. '... an eiderdown like a giant meringue.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to...

As purposefully as pikes

'Cutters of the river police smacking from wave to wave as purposefully and fast as pikes.  Once we gave way to a liner that towered out of the water like a festive block of flats.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from...

The astonishing sound of Magyar

Having just returned from Budapest, I was happy to rediscover this galloping description of the way it can sound to a foreign - or at least English - ear, with its agreeing vowels and harmonies.  And he's captured the rhythm perfectly - that 'dactylic canter' that...

Books lost and gained

In Leigh Fermor's enchanting walk across Europe, he find islands of great hospitality where he can rest and recuperate from intermittently roughing it.  Remote aristocratic homes which he intimates were often destroyed in the maelstrom of the war that was to engulf...

The loss of a journal

How many notebooks, journals or letters have been swept away by circumstance, carrying the minutiae of memory with them? Leigh Fermor used his to reconstruct his travels in his books and he clearly never got over this loss. Elsewhere he mentions a journal having been...

An unfolding plan

How do you convey the speed and completeness of a fast unfolding plan?  I enjoyed this image of a Japanese paper flower in a glass of water unfurling its petals with ease and precision. May all your plans unfold so. 'A plan unfolded with the speed and the completeness...

A curse in its Sunday best

May you be spared any such presence and any such curse.  Great phrasing though. 'His presence was both funereal and incandescent, like a curse dressed in its Sunday best.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London: Phoenix,...

Skeleton fists and black commas

This perfectly captures the gnarliness of old vines and I like the black commas contrasting against the snow-white backdrop. 'Pruned to the bone, the dark vine-shoots stuck out of the snow in rows of skeleton fists which shrank to quincunxes of black commas along the...

Truer than …

Reading the book in Barcelona, this phrase resonated as I'd discovered the simple snack you can order alongside your drink or tapas - tomato spread on white bread, pan con tomate.  Sounds boring but it's just delicious. '... what I say is truer than a slice of bread...

As bright as …

Fermín is one of the most eccentric and believable characters in The Shadow of the Wind.  He has a rollicking command of language, making his arguments compelling as much for wit as substance. In an atmosphere charged with propaganda, 'as bright as a political mural'...

As natural as…

If someone said 'as natural as...' what would pop into your mind?  'Tap water' seems unusual, but when we are being encouraged to drink tap water rather than commercially bottled water, it can seem the more 'natural' option. '... as natural as tap water.'  ...

As white as …

Probably the liveliest simile for whiteness I've come across, though I have highlighted others, less earthy. 'Daniel, you're as white as a nun's buttock.  Are you all right?'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind, trans. Lucia Graves (London:...

As weighty as …

A refreshing change from references to lead and other heavy materials, I liked this silence as weighty as the Swiss franc. 'Tomás and I were left alone, enveloped in a silence as weighty as the Swiss franc.'   Source: Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind,...

Killing flies in midair

Memorably describing the oratory of one of several colourful, eloquent characters in Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind, a book I read in Barcelona, the city where it takes place.  It was a pleasure to map the mystery's unfolding in real streets, while savouring some...

Dawn as liquid copper

I can see that bright and rosy metallic light glancing along a morning street, making it hard to discern more than the passing shadows of people. '... we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Mónica...

Spring cleaning your burrow

If you read Sea Room, you will fall in love with puffins, utterly endearing, quirky birds.  Here Nicolson describes their appearance after the annual return to their burrows.  They never change burrow and the spring cleaning is done by both parties in the lifelong...

Waiting for the pub to open

Puffins are curious and unafraid of humans, and very sociable among themselves. I loved this image of their crowding around your boat, like drinkers hovering at the pub door. 'You can take your boat in among them.  They scatter to start with, but then slowly seep back...

Puffin as scientist

The way Nicolson describes puffins makes you wonder if their name comes from 'puffed up' or 'puffed out', as there's always a sense of their parading about inspecting things, and just a touch of pomposity.  Here, their examination of a rope reminds him of a biologist...

The proprieties of the puffin

Sociable and lovable, puffins have elaborate rituals, like chaps gathered around a fireplace to smoke postprandial cigars in 1908. 'Ludicrous and lovable puffins!  Their sociability is as stiff and predictable as an evening in an Edwardian London.  Gestures of...

Skeins of geese sewn into the air

Two ways to describe the habitual, seasonal flight paths of geese: a skein woven into the air like stitches, which in turn form creases in the palm of the world's hand. 'From a satellite you could see them, long skeins of the goose bodies, sewn like stitches into the...

Eggs like a Jackson Pollock

Are puffin eggs like a Jackson Pollock, or did Jackson Pollock find some inspiration in the designs of eggs? We recently spent five hours walking around the Art Institute in Chicago, and couldn't help wondering if Picasso hadn't taken some inspiration and ideas from...

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